The moment a sandlotter whistles his first line drive over the infield and into the magical gulch of clean base hits, he dreams secret dreams. He sees himself doing the same thing later in places like Yankee Stadium, N.Y., N.Y. It's a sweet dream, and many get the call—but few get to the stadium. Sometimes, though, it really does happen.
As the minor leagues start their season, an 18-year-old catcher—Travis Rayborn from Mississippi—will begin to work his way there, in the slow, farm-system fashion. The octopuslike scouting staff of the Yanks dug him out of Lumberton; he's their property now, and he's listed as a catcher for Monroe, Cotton States League, Class C. (Two of his teammates will be Mickey Mantle's young twin brothers, Ray and Roy.) The step up from sandlotter to pro is a pretty big one, but Travis isn't awed. He's on a nice even keel about it; he doesn't overestimate himself but he doesn't underestimate, either.
"I hustle hard on a field," he says, very unblinkingly, "and I always had a strong arm. But I'm kind of slow—run 100 in 11 and a half. Don't think I'll ever be a real long ball hitter, but I do bust one now and then. That high inside pitch gives me a lot of trouble."
THERE WERE GOOD REASONS
To hear Travis talk about himself you'd almost wonder what made the Yanks hunt him out. But there were good reasons for it.
He started to play ball in grammar school at Baxterville, 10 miles from Lumberton. It was a country school of no more than 100 students, and it didn't even have a coach. Turning out a team was a case of every man for himself. However, everyone wanted Travis to pitch, which he did.
"At that time," he says, "I didn't even know there was such a thing as pro ball. I didn't find out about it until I got up to seventh grade and heard a program called Game of the Day on Mutual."
Being so completely ignorant of the existence of the Joe DiMaggios and the Stan Musials, Travis couldn't imitate anyone. He had to be just plain Travis. And, according to a famous ex-Cotton States first baseman named Cotton Tatum who now runs a gas station in Lumberton, Travis has remained exactly that. A quality, no doubt, that the Yanks liked in him.
In high school he had a coach, Jack Waters. It was his coach who first told him he was a catcher. Then he started to play American Legion junior ball, too. He still pitched sometimes, but mostly he caught. He got voted the Most Outstanding Player in Mississippi Legion ball in both '53 and '54. No wonder—consider what happened when his club, the Barrons, took the state title in four straight in '53.
Travis caught the first game, pitched the second, caught the third and then pitched the clincher. He hit .578 for the series (let Dusty Rhodes top that) and got the Barrons off to a nice start in the opener against Meridian. He came to bat in the last of the ninth with the Barrons losing 8-6 but two men on base.
Suddenly a curve ball loomed up. And Travis likes a curve ball almost as much as a steak.
He's a righty all the way. He was holding the bat at the very end the way he always does except when the pitcher is a real swifty. He blasted it.
"I thought when I lit out," he says, "that it was too much on a line to clear the fence. But, about 15 feet from the foul line where it says 320, it went out of sight and we won, 9-8."
None of these heroics were witnessed by the Yankee scout who finally discovered Travis. The scout was Atley Donald, former Yankee pitching star. He dropped in on a Lumberton High game one day when Travis was out in right field because Lumberton had three catchers and a shortage of outfielders. Donald came back to the next Lumberton game and, lo and behold, Travis was filling in at shortstop. This was the day Donald nailed him outside the locker room, although Travis had made only one hit, a double, in four at-bats.
He invited Travis to come to a Yankee Hattiesburg tryout camp to be looked over. "I think you're a catcher," Donald said, "although I've never yet seen you catch."
In due time Donald offered Travis a contract. Travis turned it down cold because in it it said he had to report to a Class D team. He didn't figure he was ready for the Stadium, but he figured he was ready for more than D.
He got what he was after. A little later Donald came back to Hattiesburg and had another talk with Travis. Result: a $2,000 bonus plus $250 per month in Class C.
The big moment is almost here—when Travis, along with hundreds of others, becomes a pro. Maybe the trail leads to the Stadium, maybe it doesn't. He knows, as Atley Donald told him, that he's got an awful lot to learn. But he's also got an awful lot of quiet confidence in himself as a ballplayer.
One bit of baseball philosophy that Travis got from his first coach he intends to carry along with him into the Cotton States League. When he asked the coach whether he should try to outguess a pitcher, the reply was: "Travis, always look for a curve and expect a fast ball."
That strategy has stuck with Travis Rayborn of Lumberton, Miss. Remember that name—you might hear it again, one of these days.